Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SONABEL. The hours you spend in line there waiting to pay your electric bill leave you plenty of time to dream up creative new meanings for the acronym. Officially, it stands for: Societè Nationale Burkinabé de l’Electricité. I prefer “Superfluous Narcissists Buttressing Eccentricity”, or, more to the point, “Sorry Natives Bungling Electricity.
The headquarters of the national electric company is in a large office downtown, completely without any sign to indicate what it is. You walk through the big metal doors straight into chaos. The dilapidated waiting room is much too small for the seventy or so poor souls milling around inside. A pair of tragically tiny air conditioners puff out bursts of tepid air, adding to the general discomfort of the “clients” who, to judge by the suffering on their faces, have all been waiting there since the Early Paleolithic. They make pathetic rattling noises, like toasters about to die a painful appliance death. The AC units, not the people.
The “décor” contributes equally to the general air of hopelessness. Where the khaki paint on the walls isn’t peeling off, it is filthy. For the seating comfort of all 70 people there are exactly two unsteady benches covered in cracked black vinyl. Ragged, yellowed posters are taped up on the windows, exhorting us all to buy the new Cashpower 2000. They don’t give a clue as to what a Cashpower 2000 is. But it clearly must be a huge advance over the old Cashpower 1999, so sign me up!.
There are also posters telling us not to pirate electricity from out neighbors. I hope all the criminals in there read that and have changed their wicked ways! ( Just a few thoughts here: A. If you are stealing electricity, you are poor. Poor people here cannot read. And B. If you are STEALING electricity, why the heck would you be hanging around the BILLING office at the Sonabel? You’d be at home watching a World Cup soccer match on your stolen TV).
The electrical installations in the waiting room are truly remarkable, even for Burkina. Exposed wiring hangs down everywhere. And it is obviously not a work in progress. I’m talking dust-covered exposed wiring hanging down like evil Christmas garlands.
I had plenty of time to take this all in, as I was far to the back of the “line” for the window marked “Resiliation”. I put the word “line” in quotes, as it has a different meaning here in Africa. In Burkina, the term refers to a huge mass of people who seem to all want to do the same thing, preferably at exactly the same time. Despite the apparently chaotic nature of the “line”, everyone involved is actually acutely aware of what order they arrived in and whose turn it is next.
I was there to pay a bill, of course, but I also vaguely entertained the thought of asking them NOT TO SET MY HOME ON FIRE. Just a thought. You see, the Sonabel typically provides either NO electricity (in the form of frequent, long blackouts during the day) or scarily uneven electricity that sends huge lightening-like surges through your home. Light bulbs explode and appliances fry. Surge protectors are a must. Ours worked fine during the last major surges we had. It caught on fire, but it did manage to protect the TV, VCR and DVD player. And it’s not cheap at all.
“The food is bad and the portions are so small”, as the old punch-line goes. I guess I’d have to say that the same holds true for Burkinabé electricity.
Late-breaking news: I just checked my email and there was a message from my internet provider here. The internet problems experienced by clients yesterday was caused by a fire started by an ELECTRICAL SURGE!!!!

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